By Teresa Rehman
GUWAHATI, India Â? Climate activists in India have discovered a crucial tool in their battle to hold the government accountable on its climate policies: the country's landmark Right to Information (RTI) Act.
Passed in 2005, the act requires all government bodies to respond to citizen requests for information within 30 days. Many bodies, threatened with legal action after initially failing to respond, are now delivering information that shows big gaps in the country's knowledge and planning on climate issues, activists say.
"RTI is an excellent tool for a citizen and India has one of the most powerful freedom of information acts in the world," said Manu Sharma, a climate activist who filed 124 of the requests last year and is now getting answers.
Sharma in 2008 launched Climate Revolution, a non-profit organization that aims "to see India adopt reduction in greenhouse gas concentration as the overriding central goal from which all internal development and growth policiesÂ?originate."
But getting basic information on government initiatives on climate change proved a struggle. That led Sharma to the Right to Information Act, which he used last October and November to file requests with a variety of government agencies, particularly the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the prime minister's office, the Ministry of Power, and the Planning Commission.
Under the act, all government ministries, departments and institutions are required to store information in a manner that makes it easily accessible. Any citizen of India can seek any information available from a public authority with few exemptions. Even in the case of an exemption, the authority must provide the information if its disclosure is in the greater public interest.
On receipt of an application, the public authority must reply within 30 days or transfer the application to another concerned authority within five days if the request does not concern its own department. If it fails to reply within the stipulated period or its answer is unsatisfactory, an appeal can be filed through an internal appeals body at that agency.
If that fails, a second appeal can be filed with a provincial Chief Information Commissioner (CIC). The office of the CIC has powers equivalent to a civil court, and can summon witnesses, order an enquiry, punish the offending officers and award compensation.
Since being passed, the act has been used by citizens as well as activists throughout the country to get information on a wide range of issues, from scarcity of medicines in a government hospital to misuse of government vehicles.
Sharma's requests covered a wide range of subjects, including climate policy, emissions levels, energy efficiency, spending on nuclear power and renewable energy, dissemination of scientific knowledge about climate change within the government and public awareness about climate issues.
EXCELLENT REPLY RATE A SURPRISE
He was happily surprised at the reply rate. While many agencies responded to his requests only after he filed a first appeal, he eventually received responses to about 95 percent of his filings, he said.
The bulk of the replies were received within about two to three months of filing applications and following them up with appeals, he said.
The contents of the replies was another matter. The first instinct of most government departments is to try and evade a detailed reply, especially if the application poses an embarrassing question, Sharma said. The prime minister's office forwarded most of the applications it received to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, even though the prime minister himself chairs the national council on climate change and has a major role in shaping climate policy, the activist said.
Other times, his questions were answered, even though the answers could be seen as embarrassing for the government.
The responses "reveal a government ignorant of the state of climate science, ill-prepared to face resource depletion, unwilling to act as science demands, unconcerned about public safety, unable to determine the right developmental priorities, and ill-prepared to defend its own claims," he charged.
His organization has used the material to issue press releases highlighting areas in which they judge the government's response to the challenges of climate change seriously deficient.
MATERIAL SHOWS POLICY GAPS
One Right to Information application, for instance, revealed that no process exists within the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the prime minister's office to identify, prioritise and pass on new scientific knowledge about climate change to the heads of the two institutions, which play the most significant role in determining IndiaÂ?s climate policy.
"A list of notable scientific literature, analyses and climate anomalies Â?provided to the ministry of Environment and Forests have not only not been acted upon but Â? even find no mention in the records of the ministry," Sharma said.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests also admitted in one of its replies that no evaluation has been carried out of how well members of parliament and bureaucrats perceive the science and urgency of climate change. Nor has there been any capacity building programme for members of parliament and bureaucrats on the subject, he said.
Sharma feels that if the government of a nation as large as India is ignorant of climate science to the extent revealed by his information requests, it cannot hope to effectively address the problem. This ignorance and denial poses a danger to Indian citizens and to people elsewhere, Sharma said.
He pointed to the fact that information applications he made seeking copies of briefs given to Indian negotiators at international climate negotiations, and reports submitted by them to the prime minister's office, have been rejected by the government.
Filed with the prime minister's office and forwarded to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the requests have been rejected on the ground that the disclosures "may affect the scientific and economic interests of the country."
"Lack of transparency in the international and national climate policy formation process signifies that government is hiding information which could be embarrassing if released," Sharma said.
Right to Information Act authorities call the act an "important tool" for Indian citizens trying to hold government accountable.
"We expect more and more people to use RTI to get information from government departments on pertinent issues like climate change," said D.N. Dutt, Assam province's Chief Information Commissioner. "RTI is an important tool even to bring certain issues to the notice of the government. Citizens should make the best use of it and we are there to help them."
Teresa Rehman is a journalist based in Northeast India. She can be reached at www.teresarehman.net